I was driving home with my two daughters, then four and six years old, when my cell phone rang.
I glanced at it, knowing what I was in for if I picked it up. The moment I turned my attention away from them they would suddenly become boisterous and probably pick a fight with each other. Worse, I knew that there was no way to force them to be quiet while I was on the phone, especially in the car.
I resigned myself to missing the call when, on a lark, I turned and asked them straight up, “I really want to take this call. Will you be quiet for a few minutes so I can?” I asked them simply and sincerely with no particular hope or expectation. And then I heard something totally unexpected—an enthusiastic “Yes, Mommy!”
I paused for a fraction of a second, doubting the wisdom of my little experiment, and then hit the “answer” button. Cringing as I turned my attention to the caller, I waited for the tirade to erupt in the backseat at any moment.
But it didn’t come.
I finished the conversation with my now new client and hung up. I pulled over, put the car into “park,” and turned my full attention to my daughters.
“Thank you so much for being quiet during my call,” I said, astounded and touched, “That was really helpful to me.” They beamed back, obviously delighted to have done a good job.
Who were these people?
Four and six-year-olds aren’t capable of the discipline and self-restraint it takes to be courteous on demand—except perhaps when bribed or threatened, and then only for a short time.
Everything in my six years of motherhood had shown me that if I took my attention off of my kids for more than a moment they would burn Rome to get it back. These angels in the backseat left me baffled and, to be honest, a bit uncomfortable.
Something in what had just happened wasn’t, well, right.
This felt more like interacting with friends—mature people who do things for others out of a sense of kindness and a healthy sense of responsibility stemming from something like, dignity. This was completely unlike what I was used to. Children require consistent, external management in order to function in a socially acceptable way. Right?
What I saw was that I had, for the first time, actually treated my children with respect—real respect, not a falsely sweet, manipulative, or pedagogically-induced pretense of respect. I had asked them for their help sincerely, just as I might ask a friend—”Hey, I would love to take this call, does that work for you?” I had shown a genuine interest in their needs and the potential limits of their capabilities, and I was prepared to honor their response either way. They, in turn, had shown me the same respect—they had shown me the same respect!
Suddenly I found myself reevaluating my whole parenting world—maybe even my whole relational world. I was humbled to realize that although it had taken me thirty-some years to do this, they had returned the favor within seconds.
The implications of this happenstance were monumental. My mind began to race, finding all the ways that I had manipulated, cajoled, bribed, threatened and, yes, forced their cooperation in the past. I saw that I had been engaging in a series of overt and covert power struggles, fearing what others would think if my children did not “behave,” as well as imagining the uncouth people they would become if I didn’t control them.
Equally tragic, I could feel the constant tension I had been living under as I had tried to will them into shape.
How could I have been so mistaken? I heard the echoes of my own upbringing, “Children will try to get away with anything,” and “They need to be guided in order to become good citizens.” The not-so-subtle implication being that children are inherently unruly, discourteous, manipulative and even bad.
Yet all that started to dissolve as I witnessed them responding immediately, open-heartedly—and to my mind, miraculously—to my unplanned moment of human decency toward them.
I had been parenting backwards. I had been using an old paradigm of control even as I professed to be more “enlightened.” The truth was that although I said many of the right words, tried hard and smiled a lot, I was often holding out bait for my children while carrying a stick behind my back. I still believed that sometimes bribes, threats and punishment were the only ways to keep peace and order. Up until then, I just hadn’t found a better way.
Marshall Rosenberg, renowned author and teacher of Non-Violent Communication, describes “the language of needs,” rather than of control. This includes both one’s own needs (“I really want to take this phone call”) and the needs of the other (“Will you be quiet so I can?”).
He suggests poignantly that we ask ourselves not just “What do I want the other person to do?” but also “What do I want their reasons to be for doing it?” Do I want the reason to be fear or guilt, or generosity and respect?
It is not hard to threaten, shame or bribe a child to get him to do what we want—or even to candy-coat it to make it sound like we are coming from kindness instead of coercion. They will usually obey—out of fear, guilt or greed—at least in the short run and at least until they get into their teens.
But when we ask ourselves what we want their reasons to be for agreeing, it becomes obvious that what we really want is for them to do it out of love, respect, and empowerment. In fact, we are outraged, disappointed, and hurt when our teenagers finally start showing enough self-respect to refuse to be manipulated and coerced. We may find out only then that what we wanted all along was their genuine connection and cooperation—one that comes only from the heart.
It’s actually kind of obvious. I like to be asked for things kindly and respectfully. I respond best to being treated as an equal. Why wouldn’t my kids be the same way?
The truth is that sometimes I simply didn’t have the patience to treat my children as full human beings. Sometimes I want things my way, and fast. In those times of high stress I haven’t always taken the time to develop a genuine relationship with them. Interestingly, even though I can’t always do it myself, I expect my children to be able to do this very thing.
So after witnessing their spontaneous expression of humanity, I began to experiment.
I decided to simply ask them to do things, rather than demanding. When I asked, I watched myself closely to see whether I was saying it genuinely, without veiled threats or an accusatory tone in my voice. I told myself that no matter what, I would not yell, cajole, threaten, shame or guilt them, even if they said ‘no.’ In my experiment, there would be absolutely no consequences.
Every counter argument clamored in my head: They will test you; They will always refuse what you ask; They will walk all over you. But I really wanted to know what would happen. Heck, I figured, I could always go back to “My way or the highway!” at least until they hit their teenage years. So I tried it out.
“Sweetheart, will you put your sweater away?’
“Hey Love, will you unload the dishwasher?”
“My head hurts and I’m tired. Would you be quiet while I rest?”
That was seven years ago, and I am still at it. I admit that I do occasionally resort to threats or demands, especially when I am stressed. I now also have lots of experience of how to apologize when I realized that I have “lost it.” I almost never resort to punishment.
Last week I said to my 10-year old, “It’s really important to me that the house be clean before the guests come. Will you help me?” She replied, “In a minute, Mama, I just want to finish something.” After a few minutes she came in and started unloading the dishwasher. We chatted while I cleaned the counters.
When she was done I asked her if she would sweep the kitchen floor and she said “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m done now. I’m really tired of doing this.”
“OK, thanks for your help,” I responded, loving her honesty, kindness and simple empowerment. I watched her skip off happy as a clam.
So, you may ask, what happens when you actually do need your kids to do something? What if it is not optional, or if it’s a matter of safety?
Well, first we need to acknowledge that about 95% of what seems to be imperative is actually optional. A sweater on the floor, going to bed when I think its time, and brushing teeth are, in fact, optional.
I talk to my kids about brushing their teeth the way I might talk to a foreign exchange student about an unfamiliar American custom. I lay out the merits and dangers of failing to brush one’s teeth. It’s more like reading them something from Wikipedia than giving them a coercive lecture.
They also see me brushing my teeth twice a day and I notice that they do in fact brush their teeth without my pleading, threatening or punishing. Worst case scenario: they get a cavity and find out for themselves whether or not they want to brush their teeth from their own hard-won experience.
What is kinder—advising my kids honestly and letting them make their own decisions (which might mean they get cavities), or being in a power-struggle every morning and night, shaming, threatening and punishing them (and sometimes they still get cavities)?
In my experience they are more likely to take my advice when they know that the consequences are truly their own.
A necessary component in treating kids with genuine respect is treating oneself with the same respect. I recently told my youngest daughter that if she doesn’t brush and gets a cavity then she is responsible for the $10 co-pay. No blame or shame, I am just not willing to over-function and deprive her of living with her own choices.
More importantly, I am making sure that I don’t become resentful toward her. This way, I can love and support her whether she brushes or not. I have nothing to lose, whereas she has not only $10 bucks but also the pain and fear around getting a cavity filled. Her motivation kicked in fast, and if it hadn’t, well they are her teeth, her pain, her money, and her life.
Just imagine how this might serve her as she contemplates choices with higher stakes—though, importantly, that was not my motivation. I was simply being honest about what I would support and what I would not support for my own sake.
So what happens when it gets more serious? A while ago my daughter “found” two $20 bills just after my friend told me that he had left the $40 he owed on my dining room table, though I never saw it. I felt pretty sure that my daughter was lying and had taken the money. I stewed, feeling angry and betrayed—how could she lie to me? How could I let her get away with it? Yet I hated the idea, however remote, of falsely accusing her. I struggled with myself not to just “lay down the law,” accuse her and demand the money back.
Finally I told her the simple truth: I felt pretty sure that she had stolen the money and lied to me, and also that I could be wrong. Without solid evidence I wasn’t going to ask her to give me the money back.
Then I talked to her about times when I myself had lied and stolen in my life. This wasn’t a covert “instructional” story to get her to confess—but rather I realized that although I couldn’t control her, I could control me.
Actually, when I looked at it, losing $40 was far less than what I had made off with in my life and suddenly I didn’t feel so righteous and “robbed.” I also wanted to confess to my daughter exactly how I had rationalized stealing and what it had cost me: guilt, hiding, a sense that I was “bad.” I genuinely felt sick about it. Mostly, I wanted her to know that if she had in fact stolen the money it didn’t mean in my book that she was a bad person. I, and everyone I have ever known, had done something similar, or worse.
Based on how most of us were raised, we might think that this condones stealing and lying. We might even think that this gives her carte blanche to do whatever the heck she wants and that there will be no consequences.
But it seems to me that had I accused or shamed her it would likely have created the very monster I feared her becoming; that is, when we think we are bad we actually tend to lie, steal and hide more—and we certainly don’t trust and confide in the person who shames us.
It took a few months before she admitted it (I had forgotten all about it by then). She was crying when she confessed, and obviously wanted me to know the truth. She paid me back, and even gave me some interest. Now she goes out of her way to pay me back as soon as possible whenever she owes me something and without reminder.
Recently she confided that she usually takes the bigger “half” when splitting something with her sister, and now I notice that she sometimes offers her sister the “big” half, or even lets her choose first.
Getting my $40 back: good. Watching my daughter find her integrity: priceless.
Taking on this experiment with my children has been what I would call a “slow fix” as opposed to a quick one. Honestly, I think if I had been able to stick with it more diligently it would have been a lot more effective, especially given how fast I watched them be so helpful to me in the car that morning when I wanted to take the phone call. But, old habits die hard. My learning curve has turned out to be a lot longer than theirs.
So, finally, what if there is a genuine safety issue? Doesn’t that justify whatever it takes, even if that means threats or demands?
I can tell you that I won’t drive the car if my child’s seatbelt isn’t on. I won’t do anything that I think will hurt them. I wouldn’t take my daughter to a friend’s house who I suspected of using drugs, for example.
If my child wanted a tattoo, I wouldn’t sign for it. No blame or outrage, I just won’t participate in something that I think she may regret. And if she gets a tattoo when she is of age, or even behind my back before then, I will be the first one to ooh and ahhh over it. It’s her life.
So far, no one wants a tattoo. Honestly, they have no one to rebel against and what’s left is for them to contemplate things for themselves.
The truth is that if our children decide to smoke, do drugs, have sex or run away there isn’t much we can do about it. This is not an abdication of responsibility but rather a reporting of the facts.
My girls and I have had many conversations about the smoking, drugs and sex and they are informed. So far, they don’t seem interested. In such cases where I don’t actually have control all I can fall back on is the love and respect that they have for me and for themselves.
If they choose to smoke and get lung cancer in their 40’s, I will be at their bed-side. It sounds terrible, but really, would threatening and trying to control them make them any less likely to try it? I think it would probably be the opposite, except that they would hide it better and further distance themselves from the one person who loves them most in the world.
So here is my secret: there is magic in treating children with respect. A genuine relationship forms and then the power-struggles, lies, and acting out all but stop. My kids help me out, and I help them out. We get to say, “no” to each other when that’s what’s honest for us, knowing that we still love each other and no one is going to get hurt, punished or shamed.
When I am upset they can see it on my face and in my words, but they don’t have to fear that I am going to take it out on them. In fact, they often stroke my arm and say, “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day, Mama,” and go back to what they were doing. Sometimes they ask if there’s anything they can do to help.
Today my girls are 12 and 14, and they are nobody’s fool. My younger daughter came in while I was writing this, asking for something. I said to her, “Hey Sweetie, I am really excited about what I’m writing and I need my whole attention to do it. Will you not interrupt me unless it’s super important?”
She said, “OK, Mama. I’m sorry I interrupted.” That was an hour ago and she hasn’t asked me anything since.
The magic bullet? Treating my children the way that I would want to be treated. That, and acting like an adult myself (no more demanding instant gratification from a 5-year-old). The natural way for children is to want our love and respect, and to become like us. When I treat myself well and treat them well, they can’t help but to treat themselves and the people around them well also. At least, that’s how it is unfolding for us so far.
Our way of being with each other now is like glass: smooth, easy and clear, and it started from the simple and revolutionary act of treating my children like whole people. By letting go of control of getting what I want in the moment I find all the ease, joy and help that I wanted in the first place. And then basking in the love I feel for—and receive from—my children, is just gravy.
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Editor: Dana Gornall